The audience who reads this magazine has an affinity for the game. However, we are approaching football season, and a significant amount of sports media turns their attention to NFL training camps as well as NCAA Division I football. Aside from the U.S. Open, tennis finds itself fighting for its place in the sports media pie. I understand this is because the NFL is the most popular spectator sport in America, that is where the ratings are and that is what sells advertising. It is simply good business. It is because many football fans love the action, the strategy, their favorite teams and the violence of the game. We love it except if it is our own children, husbands, friends and relatives are the ones who are getting hurt.
Recently, several prominent football players publicly came out on the dangers of the game as it relates to concussions. We have seen several noteworthy former players who actually committed suicide as a result of brain damage/depression brought on by the effects of one or more concussions they had suffered. Kurt Warner, a famous retired NFL quarterback, and others have said that they would prefer their own children not play football and find another sport. This is a very controversial subject, so much so that there have been many rule changes to protect the NFL, collegiate and high school football players. Even Pop Warner Leagues, one of the first national youth sport organizations to implement concussion rules, are changing their rules regarding football practices.
When I hear of those things happening, although unfortunate for the players who play the sport and even those who watch like myself, I see an opportunity for tennis.
Come on; let’s think out of the box for a moment … can you see more football players playing tennis? I can and I know it’s possible; we just have to convince them. My son just graduated high school this year, and his experience in high school included competing on the tennis team. What surprised me is that many of his friends who do play on the football team signed his yearbook with good-natured comments about football being the masculine sport and tennis being the cowardly sport. Well, behind the good-natured teasing comes some truth in that there is still a culture that believes tennis players are just not worthy of the respect from the football community. Well if concussions, broken ankles, dislocated shoulders and a plethora of other injuries are prevalent in that community, then I guess I am glad I was exposed to tennis from a young age. Coming from a middle-class neighborhood, I can assure you I was the minority as were my children because we chose the sport of tennis.
I have not been to a football game, whether it be pro, collegiate or high school, where I not have seen at least one injured player sitting out the game and at least a couple of play stoppages for a player who suffered an injury. Yes, of course tennis players can suffer injuries. We are not immune to knee problems, tennis elbow and more. However, I never saw a tennis player carted off the court because of a concussion.
Here is my idealistic wish, I need just one prominent high school or college player in every community across America to stand up and say “I am going to play tennis.” If one person on a football team does it, then our game will have more of a chance to get out of the country clubs and out into the mainstream. Like it or not, our game still resonates within the sports community as a country club game and not for the masses. I know the USTA tries to get out into under privileged communities and other neighborhoods to promote our sport, but when the high school football team attracts 60 or more kids to tryout and many middle-America high schools and communities can barely attract a dozen tennis players to try out, something is just not right. I don’t know whose fault that is or why, but I do know we have a long way to go.
The U.S. Open will probably draw record crowds again this year so things cannot be too bad. However, I won’t see too many people from my old middle-class neighborhood there. That is too bad, they are missing something great. If you are a football player who has had one too many injuries, call your buddies and say “Tennis anyone?”
Lonnie Mitchel is head men’s and women’s tennis coach at SUNY Oneonta. Lonnie was named an assistant coach to Team USA for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel for the Grand Master Tennis Division. Lonnie may be reached by phone at (516) 414-7202 or e-mail email@example.com.